The human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment - HRC resolution

States have an obligation to take special care to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of those who are at most risk from environmental harm.

The 2021 HRC Resolution (A/HRC/48/L.23) recognised that the consequences of environmental damage are “felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations, including Indigenous peoples, older persons, persons with disabilities, and women and girls” and “additional measures should be taken for those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm.”

The 2021 HRC Resolution recognises the well-established linkages between human rights and the environment.

  1. A healthy environment is fundamental to the enjoyment of human rights.

Sustainable development and the protection of the environment contribute to and promote human well-being and the enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to adequate food, to housing, to safe drinking water and sanitation and to participation in cultural life, for present and future generations.

  1. Environmental harm interferes with the enjoyment of human rights.

The impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, the resulting loss of biodiversity and the decline in services provided by ecosystems interfere with the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; and environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights.

  1. A healthy environment depends on the exercise of human rights

The exercise of human rights, including the rights to seek, receive and impart information, to participate effectively in the conduct of government and public affairs and in environmental decision-making and to an effective remedy, is vital to the protection of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

States human rights obligations relating to the environment include: 

  1. Substantive obligations of States to adopt legal and institutional frameworks that protect against environmental harm that interferes with the enjoyment of human rights, including harm caused by private actors and transboundary environmental harm.
  2. Procedural obligations of States to assess environmental impacts on human rights and to make environmental information public, to facilitate participation in decision-making, and to provide access to remedies for harm.
  3. Non-discrimination and other obligations of States relating to the protection of members of groups in vulnerable situations, including women, children and Indigenous peoples

A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is the foundation of human life. But today, because of human action – and inhuman inaction – the triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and nature loss is directly and severely impacting a broad range of rights including the rights to adequate food, water, education, housing, health, development and even life itself. The interlinked crisis of pollution, climate change and biodiversity act as threat multipliers – amplifying conflicts, tensions and structural inequalities, and forcing people into increasingly vulnerable situations. As these environmental threats intensify, they will constitute the single greatest challenge to human rights in our era. All this is now painfully clear. The greatest uncertainty about these challenges is what policy makers are doing about them. Bold action is now required to ensure this resolution on the right to a healthy environment serves as a springboard to push for transformative economic, social and environmental policies that will protect people and nature…”
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The right to a healthy environment has substantive and procedural elements. 

Substantive elements

The substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment refers to environmental conditions of a certain standard or quality necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights. They include:

  • Clean air,
  • A safe climate,
  • Access to safe water and adequate sanitation,
  • Healthy and sustainably produced food,
  • Non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play, and
  • Healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.

Procedural elements

The procedural elements – as described – relate to the processes that have a fundamental role in giving effect to the substantive elements. The procedural elements of the right to a healthy environment include:

  • Access to environmental information
  • Participation in environmental decision-making
  • Access to effective remedies

Check out the UNEP for more information on substantive and procedural elements of the right to a healthy environment.

How did we do?

NHRIs and environmental rights course

The Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment